As a child, Lauri Burns thought God was punishing her for something horrible she had done in a past life. How else could she explain the years of beatings by her father that began when she was just 5 years old, or the mental abuse that left her suicidal by her bat mitzvah and led her to drug addiction and prostitution on the streets of Santa Ana?
Today, Burns, 47, is sure that her suffering was meant to prepare her for her life’s mission to rescue children of a foster care system that is failing them.
Each year, nearly 25,000 of the more than half a million children in foster care age out of the system at 18, many with nowhere to go. Only 3 percent go to college, and former foster youth make up 27 percent of the homeless population.
In 2008, Burns started The Teen Project to pick up where the system leaves off. The project gives dozens of current and emancipated foster kids in Orange County the emotional, financial and career guidance they need to become independent. A volunteer-based organization funded by private grants and contributions, The Teen Project has one full-time and one part-time employee and an operating budget of nearly $175,000.
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“We’re a parent to the parentless,” Burns said. “We will never abandon these kids. We’ll stay with them until they finish school and help them get to successful careers. That’s what parents do.”
She strives to provide these teens with the secure family setting she was denied.
The child of a middle-class Jewish family in New York, Burns was removed from her abusive home and sent to a mental hospital after her 12th birthday, when her father falsely told police that she had threatened him with his gun. Straitjacketed to a bed and heavily medicated, she was eventually released to her mother, who had left for California to find safe haven for Burns and her two sisters. But by then she was already “damaged,” she said. A growing criminal record of drug use, theft and constant running away resulted in her being deemed a ward of the state in her midteens and sent to live in group homes. At 18, emancipated, with a young daughter, a drug habit and no home to return to, she took to working the streets to survive.
At 23, Burns was brutally beaten by two men and left for dead. Within 24 hours, she found herself in a recovery home, where she began years of intensive therapy that ultimately gave her a new start in life. She studied computers, eventually launching her own consulting firm, and ran sessions for single moms struggling with drug addiction. She took the first of her 18 foster children into her home in 1996. (Her daughter, Summer, 28, graduated from Columbia University in 2008 and is now a social worker in New York.)
Central to The Teen Project is a pristine home on a quiet cul de sac in Lake Forest that houses up to six women ages 18 to 24, both her own foster children and others referred by social services. Four girls currently live in the six-bedroom, 2,100-square-foot house, which a local contractor renovated free of charge.
Despite a hectic schedule that has her commuting from her Orange County home to Los Angeles, where she is an executive with a Fortune 100 defense company, Burns creates a sense of stability in the girls’ lives through her constant presence. She talks to and texts them every day, visits several times a week and cooks breakfast with them every Sunday. They often visit her as well. She helps them secure scholarships and grants for college or trade school.
For kids not eligible for the house, The Teen Project provides alternative support. An all-volunteer street outreach program brings food, bus passes and information on area shelters to nearly 170 kids and young adults, ages 15 to 24, living in Orange County parks and on beaches. Burns’ next goal is to open a drop-in shelter that will channel homeless kids up to age 24 into foster care or youth or transitional housing.
Burns steers clear of government funding that comes tied to age limits and other restrictions. More than 30 volunteers give medical, financial planning and therapeutic services, and all food at the Lake Forest home is provided at no cost by the Adopt-a-Neighborhood program.
Burns was initially uncomfortable asking for help, but she has been inspired by her studies at the Chabad Jewish Center in Mission Viejo.
“The rabbi taught me that by not asking for donations, you rob a person of the opportunity of doing a mitzvah,” she said. “As Jews, we have a responsibility to bring God’s light to the darkest places in this world. Each time we do a mitzvah and help someone else, angels of light are created on earth.”